Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Edmond O'Brien, Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmund Gwenn, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman
Written by: Ida Lupino, Collier Young, Paul Jarrico, Malvin Wald, Lawrence B. Marcus, Lou Schor
Directed by: Ida Lupino
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 323
Date: 09/24/2019

Ida Lupino: Filmmaker Collection (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Ida Riches

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ida Lupino (1918-1995) might have been just another beautiful starlet, but instead she became a pioneer. Even onscreen, her beauty had a certain hardness, a hardness that must have come in handy when she followed her instincts to become a director in 1940s Hollywood, where few (no?) other women were directing. It must have taken great courage and perseverance to keep going and to stand up to the myriad of people that probably told her "women can't direct pictures." But direct she did. She managed to complete eight feature films (her television work is much more extensive, with episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Rifleman, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The Twilight Zone, Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, and many more). Now Kino Lorber has released a box set, Ida Lupino: Filmmaker Collection, containing remastered Blu-rays of four of her features.

In the 1940s Lupino formed an independent production company with her husband Collier Young. Lupino wrote and produced Not Wanted (1949), and then took over behind the camera when credited director Elmer Clifton fell ill. It's a blunt, hard social issue movie about unwanted pregnancies; Lupino was not allowed to either mention the word "pregnancy" or show a pregnant woman, but she went around these limitations without pausing to take a breath, delivering her story with punch and genuine emotion. Lovely Sally Forrest plays Sally Kelton, who runs away to be with a musician she barely knows, winds up pregnant and alone, and having to make the tough choice between keeping her baby or giving it up for adoption. Keefe Brasselle plays good-hearted Drew Baxter, who still likes her regardless. Lupino frequently frames Sally isolated at center frame, visually underlining her suffering.

Lupino received her first official credit with Never Fear (1949), another social issue film, about polio. Forrest and Brasselle star once again, as Carol and Guy, a romantic couple and a dance team trying to make it in showbiz, but things grind to a halt when Carol finds she can no longer walk. Refreshingly, the movie is more about Carol's intense self-pity than it is about polio; it's a much harder battle for her to come out of that emotional quagmire than it is for her to learn to walk again. Brasselle has a more complex role to play here, banging his head against a wall to try and get Carol to come back to him; he even has a scene in which he tries to seduce a former co-worker, simply out of frustration or loneliness. These two films are almost like gut-punches, like something Sam Fuller might have done.

Next up in the box set is Lupino's tense film noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953), which I reviewed earlier, and then, finally, The Bigamist (1953). Boasting a much more A-list cast, this one sounds like another lurid potboiler about a slimy, smarmy womanizer, but it's actually a weirdly sympathetic story about a guy who simply gets himself in a spot of trouble and tries to do the right thing. Harry (Edmond O'Brien) is a traveling salesman based in San Francisco and married to Eve (Joan Fontaine), who can't have children. She takes over running the business from home while he's on the road, and their relationship begins to suffer. Feeling lonely, Harry meets Phyllis (Ida Lupino), who works at a second-rate Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles. He sees her again and again, at first innocently, until one night he crosses the line, and she winds up pregnant. So he marries her. Edmund Gwenn co-stars as Mr. Jordan from the adoption agency, who figures out what's going on after Harry and Eve try to adopt a child. (There are jokes about Miracle on 34th Street, for which Gwenn had won an Oscar a few years earlier.) Once again, this is pretty straightforward, with Lupino's matter-of-fact approach unexpectedly highlighting the nuanced emotions of the story; she also gets great atmosphere out of the movie's locations.

It's too bad that the set couldn't have also included her films Outrage (1950), Hard, Fast and Beautiful! (1951), and On Dangerous Ground (1952). The latter was begun by the great Nicholas Ray, and Lupino, who was already starring in it, took over when Ray fell ill. (Her eighth and final film, The Trouble with Angels, is a silly comedy and wouldn't really fit with the others.) But what is here is still pretty essential, even if "social issue" films aren't exactly the easiest genre to get excited about. The transfers are excellent, as is the sound. Not Wanted includes a commentary track by Barbara Scharres, Director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center with Filmmmaker/Historian Greg Ford, and a short film about pregnancy that used footage from the film. Never Fear comes with a commentary track by film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. The Hitch-Hiker features a commentary track by film historian Imogen Sara Smith. And The Bigamist offers a commentary track by film historian Kat Ellinger. All the discs come with batches of classic trailers. Best of all is a huge, glossy booklet filled with photos and a long essay by Ronnie Scheib.

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